Paunchy Pet? Trade the High-Calorie Treats

Commit to memory: It's not the treat itself, but the treat event that pets love!

It’s no secret the American palate loves rich, calorically dense treats. Unfortunately, our pets love them as well. October is Pet Obesity Awareness Month, and while it’s often an uncomfortable topic, fact remains that over half of America’s pet dogs and cats are overweight or obese. What’s more, nearly all of their owners incorrectly identify their pet’s body condition as “normal.” 

Whenever I suggest a diet change, one of the first questions I tend to hear is, “But what about her treats?” When it comes to training and behavior modification, I’m a big fan of food rewards. We use them in our clinic to teach anxious pets to associate us with more than just procedures. When used mindfully, and in tiny portions, food rewards are a godsend. It’s the size, frequency, and pointlessness of treats that contribute to America’s pet obesity problem.

Many pet owners fall into the habit of doling out commercial pet treats just because. Worse yet, we give them because our pets demand them. And those little tidbits and leftovers from the table? They’re okay, right? After all, it’s the same food we eat. But bear this in mind: a human requires roughly 2,300 calories per day. Naturally, this number fluctuates wildly when you factor in age, gender, muscle mass, activity levels, etc., but bear with me. My little dachshund, Grendel, requires less than 200 calories per day. So a single, 17-calorie commercial dog treat provides her with 11.7% of her body’s caloric needs. And the 45-calorie treats she really likes account for nearly one quarter of her body’s needs! Many of my patients are about her size, and most of them get these same sized treats. What’s more, some of them get several of said treats per day.

Dr. Ernie Ward is the founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention,  and author of the book “Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter - A Vet’s Plan To Save Their Lives.”  In his book, Dr. Ward reveals the calorie content of some of the most popular commercial dog treats, and details what a human would need to eat in order to achieve the caloric equivalent. I’m not going to drop names or single out brands, because frankly, I don’t want to get sued. If you want to know if Fluffy’s favorite treat is on what I’ve dubbed “the OMG list”, you’ll have to buy the book. Kidding aside, it’s the best book I’ve read on the subject and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Here are just a few of Dr. Ward’s findings:

For a 10-pound dog:

A single, popular bone bone-shaped treat is the caloric equivalent of a human eating TWO chocolate iced glazed doughnuts.

One chewy, bacon-style treat equals a human eating a popular fast food cheeseburger.

For a 20-pound dog:

One popular dental health chew treat is equivalent to us drinking THREE 16-ounce, fast food, chocolate milk shakes.

Another “light” variety of dental health treat equals us eating a fast food hot fudge sundae.

For a 40-pound dog:

One peanut butter and apple flavored treat is the equivalent of a large order of fast food french fries for you.

For a 60-pound dog:

One large “wholesome” treat is like us eating FOUR fast food fried chicken breasts.


Perhaps by now you’re thinking the solution to treating sensibly is to substitute “people food” for commercial pet treats. HIll’s Pet Nutrition collected some interesting data as well. Let’s see what they discovered about sharing our food with our cats:

For a 10-pound cat:

A single potato chip is the caloric equivalent of half of a hamburger for us. And seriously, who eats just one potato chip?

My generation was taught that a saucer of milk (8 ounces) was the ultimate way to show Kitty how much she was loved. This is the caloric equivalent of a human eating FIVE king-sized milk chocolate bars!

Ready for a few more fun facts from Dr. Ward?

For a 40-pound dog:

Just half of a beef hot dog is equal to us eating an 8-ounce T-bone steak.

For an 80-pound dog:

A scrambled, Grade A large egg is the caloric equivalent of a slice of French toast with butter for us.

Let’s face it - most of the foods we eat are far more calorically dense than we realize. When we factor in our pet’s vastly different nutritional needs, and combine it with their natural instinct to preserve energy, it’s easy to see how those empty calories add up. That being said, I am routinely reminded that to pet parents, treating is important. So let’s talk about how to give treats mindfully.

My Dogs Get Treats.

There are many situations in which treats can be your friend. Small food rewards are great motivational tools for teaching new behaviors. Such behaviors can alleviate one of the most common causes of begging and overeating - boredom. If the behaviors you teach also burn calories, even better. We use treats to teach Zohan how to perform tricks, and Grendel how to track scents. Each treat, however, is about half the size of a pencil eraser. Crunchy treats are placed in sealed bags and mercilessly crushed into tiny pieces. The emphasis is not on the treat itself, but rather on the treat event. Accompany each food reward with lots of praise. By doing so, you can cut back on the number of rewards given, until your praise is the only reward they seek.

While treats are allowed at Casa Kupkee, they come with strings attached. Our dogs must earn them. This might mean running through their repertoire of learned behaviors, or it might be holding still for a nail trim or an ear cleaning. They never get treats by demanding them, and if you are a new pet owner, I strongly advise you to nip this behavior in the bud. It gets annoying quickly, and it is simply too tempting to toss your pet a high-calorie treat just to shut her up. This rewards her behavior, and a rewarded behavior is a repeated behavior. Don’t give it a chance to take root. It nearly always leads to frazzled owners and overweight pets.

If “people food” is is your treat of choice, there are plenty of healthy options there as well. With some exceptions, small pieces of fruit can be safely enjoyed by our pets. Never give grapes or raisins, or anything containing pits or seeds. That said, the flesh from these fruits is fine. Apples, bananas, blueberries and pineapple chunks seem to be popular with pets. Again, remember to keep the portions small. Unseasoned vegetables, either cooked or raw, can be given as well. Never give veggies that have been flavored with butter, and avoid anything in the allium family. This includes, but is not limited to, garlic, onions, chives, scallions, and leeks. Remember, some of Miami’s most popular go-to seasonings, sofrito and mojo, are loaded with onions and garlic, so do not give your pet anything flavored with these local favorites. If only a “cookie” will do, try substituting plain rice cakes. Let me emphasize PLAIN! Nothing sweetened, salted, or flavored. An entire rice cake consists of about 10 calories, and only a tiny morsel is needed. They are always in season and cheaper than dirt. A client recently quipped that this is because dirt is exactly what they taste like! Fair enough, but guess what? Our pets don’t care! Why? Commit it to memory:

It’s not the treat, it’s the treat event.

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic

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